This psalm touches the highest point of religious poetry. It is the most perfect hymn the world has ever produced. Even as a lyric it has scarcely been surpassed; while as a lyric inspired by religion, not only was all ancient literature, except that of the Hebrews, powerless to create anything like it, but even Christian poetry has never succeeded in approaching it. Milton has told the story of Creation, taking, as the psalmist does, the account in Genesis for his model; but the seventh book of the Paradise Lost, even when we make allowance for the difference between the narrative and lyric styles, is tame and prolix—seems to want animation and fire—by the side of this hymn.
At the very opening of the poem we feel the magic of a master inspiration. The world is not, as in Genesis, created by a Divine decree. It springs into life and motion, into order and use, at the touch of the Divine presence. Indeed, the pervading feeling of the hymn is the sense of God’s close and abiding relation to all that He made; the conviction that He not only originated the universe, but dwells in it and sustains it: and this feeling fastens upon us at the outset, as we see the light enfolding the Creator as His robe, and the canopy of heaven rising over Him as His tent. It is not a lifeless world that springs into being. There is no void, no chaos; even the winds and clouds are not for this poet without denizens, or they themselves start into life and people the universe for his satisfaction. He cannot conceive of a world at any time without life and order. Nor has any poet, even of our modern age, displayed a finer feeling for nature, and that not in her tempestuous and wrathful moods—usually the source of Hebrew inspiration—but in her calm, everyday temper. He is the Wordsworth of the ancients, penetrated with a love for nature, and gifted with the insight that springs from love. This majestic hymn is anonymous in the Hebrew. The LXX. have ascribed it to David. Its close connection with Psalms 103, and an Aramaic word in Psalm 104:12, indicate a post-exile date for its composition. The verse shows every variety of rhythm.
(1) Clothed.—For the same metaphor see Psalm 93:1.
Putting on light as a robe;
Spreading the heavens as a curtain.
The psalmist does not think of the formation of light as of a single past act, but as a continued glorious operation of Divine power and splendour. Not only is light as to the modern poet,
“Nature’s resplendent robe,
Without whose vesting beauty all were wrapt
In unessential gloom,”
but it is the dress of Divinity, the “ethereal woof” that God Himself is for ever weaving for His own wear.
Curtain.—Especially of a tent (see Song of Solomon 1:5, &c.), the tremulous movement of its folds being expressed in the Hebrew word. Different explanations have been given of the figure. Some see an allusion to the curtains of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26, 27). The associations of this ritual were dear to a religious Hebrew, and he may well have had in his mind the rich folds of the curtain of the Holy of Holies. So a modern poet speaks of
“The arras-folds, that variegate
The earth, God’s ante-chamber.
Herder, again, refers the image to the survival of the nomadic instinct. But there is no need to put a limit to a figure so natural and suggestive. Possibly images of palace, temple, and tent, all combined, rose to the poet’s thought, as in Shelley’s “Ode to Heaven”:—
“Palace roof of cloudless nights!
Paradise of golden lights!
Deep immeasurable vast,
Which art now, and which wert then;
Of the present and the past,
Of the Eternal where and when,
Presence-chamber, temple, home,
Of acts and ages yet to come!”
Chambers.—Literally, lofts or upper stories. (See 2 Kings 4:10; Jeremiah 22:13-14.)
In the waters.—The manner of this ethereal architecture is necessarily somewhat difficult to picture. The pavilion which God rears for His own abode appears to rest on a floor of rain-clouds, like a tent spread on a flat eastern roof. (See Psalm 18:11; Amos 9:6-7.) Southey’s description of the Palace of Indra may perhaps help the imagination:—
“Built on the lake, the waters were its floor;
And here its walls were water arched with fire,
And here were fire with water vaulted o’er;
And spires and pinnacles of fire
Round watery cupolas aspire,
And domes of rainbow rest on fiery towers.”
Curse of Kehama.
Who maketh the clouds His chariot.—See Psalm 18:10, probably the original of this verse; chariot (rekhûb) here taking the place of cherub.
Walketh upon the wings of the wind.—Doubtless the metaphor is taken from the clouds, which, in a wind-swept sky, float along like “the drifted wings of many companies of angels.” The clause is thus in direct parallelism with the description of the cloud chariot. The figure has passed into modern song:
“Every gust of rugged wings
That blows from off each beaked promontory.”
“No wing of wind the region swept.”
TENNYSON: In Memoriam.
Who maketh winds His messenger
A flaming fire His ministers.
Or, keeping the order of the Hebrew,
Who maketh His messengers of winds,
And His ministers of flaming fire.
This is plainly the meaning required by the context, which deals with the use made by the Divine King of the various forms and forces of Nature. Just as He makes the clouds serve as a chariot and the sky as a tent, so he employs the winds as messengers and the lightnings as servants.
Taken quite alone, the construction and arrangement of the verse favours the interpretation of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 1:7, Note, New Testament Commentary). This was the traditional Jewish interpretation, and on it were founded various theories of angelic agency.
But not only do the exigencies of the context set aside this interpretation, but Hebrew literature offers enough instances to show that the order in which a poet arranged his words was comparatively immaterial. Indeed, Dean Perowne has adduced two instances (Isaiah 37:26; Isaiah 60:18) of precisely similar inversion of the natural order of immediate object and predicate. (See Expositor, December, 1878.) And no difficulty need be made about the change of number in flame of fire and ministers, since even if the former were not synonymous with lightnings, its predicate might be plural. (See Proverbs 16:14, “The wrath of a king is messengers of death.”)
(5) Who laid . . .—Better, He fixed the earth on its foundations. (Comp. Job 38:4-6; Proverbs 8:29.)
The inconsistency of this with Job 26:7, “He laid the earth upon nothing,” need not cause difficulty. Both treatments are poetical, not scientific. The word foundations implies stability and endurance (comp. Psalm 82:5), as in Shakespeare’s
“The frame and huge foundation of the earth.”
The verse has a historical interest from having supplied the Inquisition with an argument against Galileo.
“Immediately the mountains huge appear
Emergent,” &c—Paradise Lost, book vii.
Valleys—i.e., the torrent beds, the “wadys” as the Arabs now call them.
Which run.—Better, they flow between the hills. The LXX. supply the subject “waters.”
Thy works.—If we go by the parallelism, this means the “rain,” here called God’s works, as in Psalm 65:9 (see Note), his “river.” Others prefer to see a general reference to the operations of nature which produce fruit.
That he may.—Better, bringing food out of the earth, taking the verb as gerund instead of infinitive absolute.
Oil.—For oil and its uses see Psalm 133:2; Psalm 141:5.
Strengtheneth.—Properly, props or supports. (Comp. “the staff of bread,” Psalm 105:16), and our “staff of life,” and for the same phrase Genesis 18:5; Judges 19:5).
“The eagle and the stork
On cliffs and cedar-tops their eyries build.”—MILTON.
Conies.—Heb., shāphan, i.e., “hider.” (Comp. Leviticus 11:5, and Bible Educator, II., 201.) Naturalists know it as the hyrax Syriacus. The LXX., Vulg., and Aquila have “hedgehogs.”
The sun knoweth.—So Job 38:12’ of the dawn. The sun is no mere mechanical timepiece to the Israelite poet, but a conscious servant of God. How beautifully this mention of sunset prepares the way for the exquisite picture of the nocturnal landscape, as the sunrise in Psalm 104:22 does for the landscape of the day.
In Genesis the creation of the “heavenly bodies”—the fourth day’s work—is related in, so to speak, a scientific manner. But the poet, as in the former part of his treatment of the subject, at once goes to the influence of these phenomena on animated being. In Genesis the lamps of heaven are, as it were, hung out at God’s command; in the poem they seem to move to their office of guiding the seasons and illuminating the earth like living things who are conscious of the glorious function they have to perform.
“Who make perpetual moan,
Still from one labour to another thrown,”
has not appeared. The day brings only healthy toil, and the evening happy rest.
There is something as fine in art as true in religion in this sudden burst of praise—the “evening voluntary” of grateful adoration—into which the poet bursts at the mention of the day’s close. Weariness leaves the soul, as it is lifted from contemplation of man’s toil to that of God. Athanasius remarked on the sense of rest and refreshment produced by this change of strain.
Creeping.—See Psalm 104:20. Perhaps here, “swarming.”
Leviathan.—See Psalm 74:14. In Job (Job 41) it is the crocodile, but here evidently an animal of the sea, and probably the whale. Several species of cetacea are still found in the Mediterranean, and that they were known to the Hebrews is clear from Lamentations 4:3. Various passages from classic authors support this view.
Whom Thou . . .—This clause is rendered by some “whom Thou hast made to play with him” (so LXX. and Vulg.), referring to Job 41:5. It is a rabbinical tradition that Leviathan is God’s play thing.
Thou takest away their breath.—Not only is the food which sustains animal life dependent on the ceaseless providence of God, but even the very breath of life is His, to be sent forth or withdrawn at His will. But to this thought, derived of course from Genesis (comp. Psalm 90:3, Note), the poet adds another. The existence of death is not a sorrow to him any more than it is a mystery. To the psalmist it is only the individual that dies; the race lives. One generation fades as God’s breath is withdrawn, but another succeeds as it is sent forth.
 In reality the power of sin to interfere with God’s pleasure. in His universe is present as an undercurrent of thought in Psalms 103, as well as 104. In the former it is implied that forgiveness and restoration are requisite before the harmony of the universe (Psalm 104:20-22) can become audible. The two psalms are also closely related in form.
“I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I lay reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran
And much it grieved my heart to think
What Man has made of Man.”
Bless thou the Lord.—This is the first hallelujah in the psalter. Outside the psalter it is never found, and was therefore a liturgical expression coined in a comparatively late age. It is variously written as one or two words.